In the midst of the grandeur of the Gilded Age, three members of high society find themselves in caught in a heart-wrenching love triangle. Newland Archer is an upstanding member of one of the finest families in Old New York. Engaged to the lovely May Wellington, he is resigned to take his place in society and live an ordinary life of quiet complacency. But when the Countess Olenska returns in a flurry of scandal, she gives Newland “his first glimpse of a real life” and true love. Will he risk everything for romance or live a life of regret? Directed by one of the greatest directors of our time, Martin Scorsese, it is a brilliant adaptation of Edith Wharton's Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel.
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The review of this Movie prepared by MRomans
One of Edith Wharton's most famous mottoes has to be when she wrote that “Life is the saddest thing there is, next to death.” Not exactly the life of the party, now are we? Wharton knew from sadness, and when she wrote novels like Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence she infused them with a tragedy unknown in any other author of the time. The latter work in particular is a tear-inducing criticism of a society that quashes the life out of passionate individuals who dare to feel for themselves without asking permission from the rest of the world.
Martin Scorsese, the man most famous for giving gangsters a loud, cinematic voice, has done the unthinkable: he has made what is probably the most elegant film ever created. Out-costuming the Merchant Ivory team, he's taken the starch out of costume dramas and created an epic of beauty. He also goes one step further than his cinematic colleagues and perfectly translates Wharton's writing on two important levels: having key passages from the book directly narrated (in the most languid voice work) by Joanne Woodward, and visually translating Wharton's sentiments with his camera movements and Thelma Schoonmaker's skillful editing.
The story centres on the life of Newland Archer (Day-Lewis), a young member of the New York gentry in the 1870s who has the affluent life anyone in his position should have. He is a successful lawyer, he owns a beautiful home, and is just recently engaged to the beautiful and, ahem, proper May Welland (Ryder). Upon announcing his engagement, he meets for the first time since childhood May's cousin, one Countess Olenska (Pfeiffer). She has just returned from Europe after leaving her abusive husband, a Polish Count.
It is soon obvious that Archer and Countess Olenska are attracted to each other in the most gripping of ways: they understand each other. This leads them to a passion that is practically deadly in the watchdog society they live in.
From the beginning of the story, Scorsese makes sure we get to know who these people are. Scanning over an opera audience's heads, he gives us close-ups of the ornaments in the women's hair, the chains on the men's ornate pocket watches. When we are shown a dinner scene at a particular hosts' grand estate, Scorsese lingers over the perfectly arranged plates of food, or the meticulously designed floral bouquets. All this may seem unnecessary, but it's actually the setup for a love story that needs this careful attention to detail to be told correctly.
These elements are given to us in such detail because the world we're watching knows nothing of more importance than your house's interior decoration: if your host doesn't have a proper drawing room decorated in the generally accepted fashion, he might be considered unfit for your patronage (at one point, the not-so-repectable Julius Beauford hangs a nude Venus, audaciously, in plain sight). In her novel, Wharton painted a picture of two-dimensional people, people who wasted entire lives (and loves) on making sure they could avoid the careful whispers being spoken behind closed doors, even though it never stopped them from joining in on the whispering when someone else was involved.
These details are comfortably housed in Dante Ferretti's brilliant production design. The sets come from a beautiful dream, looming large over the actors' heads, surrounding them with the obsession of “conspicuous consumption” that heavily marked the Victorian period. In the same way, Gabriella Pescucci's detailed costume designs display the plush fabrics and embroideries that reveal to the audience much of the characters' emotions and situations. Even the stark black and white of the men's suits seem to suggest how these gentlemen view the issues they face in their lives, such as a nearly-married man involved romantically with his fiancee's cousin. Archer's suits, as the film progresses, begin to be worn in the colour gray.
Filling these costumes is no easy task. For the three main characters in this battle of wills, Scorsese has hired none but the very best. As Archer, Day-Lewis gives his most comprehensive performance so far. Abandoning his usually ingratiating showy techniques, his performance lies in the suffering that we witness behind his eyes. I so much prefer this role over his overstated innocent-prisoner turn in In The Name of the Father, which also came out the same year (and for which he received all the critical attention and award nominations); here he treads more along the same lines as his tenderhearted punk rocker in Stephen Frears' My Beautiful Laundrette.
Michelle Pfeiffer is as sharp as a tack as Ellen Olenska, a woman who has seen it all and is still forced to suffer. Looking at it from her point of view, the film is about a woman who is punished by society for being comfortable with herself. From the outset we see she is different: she doesn't speak shyly to men or wait for them to initate conversation. “Why would they start a new world only to make it exactly like the old one?” she asks Archer. She smokes in front of Archer, is seen publicly being escorted places (quite innocently) with a married man (Wilson) who she doesn't want to go out with but feels obligated by family ties, and dares to attempt a divorce from her monster of a husband. A woman who knows what she wants and goes for it? Demonic! She must be destroyed. All New York shamelessly rallies together to eradicate this villain.
Who better to lead the haughty fray than Olenska's own nemesis: May Welland. As May, Ryder is simply remarkable. In her first scene she seems to us a complete nitwit: a pretty and well-dressed girl, but one who pays no attention to the betterment of her mental faculties. Ryder tears down that façade with burning relish. She understands the character from the inside out, making May the most emotionally inspiring character in the whole movie (and the one that inspires the most conversation after viewing the film). As the plot progresses, we start to understand how May really works; though she is intellectually unrefined, she's not in the least bit stupid. She is Wharton's representation of the society Archer and Olenska are trapped in: she plays by the rules like she invented them, and uses any device to make sure everything turns out her way, and it does. She never comes out with what she wants to say, opting instead to turn passive-aggressive on her husband. When she slips up on a story he's made up to get away from home to visit the Countess, May questions him like she has no idea what he's talking about. “Oh never mind me, it's too complicated for me to understand,” she intimates with her large doe eyes and wan smile. It comes as no surprise to me that Ryder wrote an essay on this character in high school and got an A for it.
Wharton's message of doom is clear: the one who plays along with the lie we've all helped to create is the one who succeeds. May has her marriage, her children and a completely comfortable life. Archer is caught into a plastic marriage and separated from the one person who ever makes him feel alive. Olenska, feeling too threatened by those around her, is forced to make her home in Europe again, but far away from her husband.
Who would have thought Scorsese could do it? Well, myself for starters. Just because he's most famous for his gangster films doesn't mean that those are the only films he's capable of doing well. With projects like After Hours, The Last Temptation of Christ and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Scorsese has shown his capability with a wide range of cinematic genres; why stop him at the period-drama threshold? He drives the pace along with a slow but sure hand, never for a moment letting the film get carried away with itself.
Not to mention the atmosphere. There are moments during this movie I just couldn't breathe. No matter where in New York they go, Archer and the Countess are just never alone. They might seem to be, but even the hand-swen curtains seem to have eyes (those eyes are all photographed by Michael Ballhaus, the man also responsible for the gorgeous Bram Stoker's Dracula a year before, also starring Ryder). The rooms with their overstuffed decorations and walls covered with numerous paintings loom over our protagonists with a close gaze; they're never trusted from the second they meet.
Real love is the answer, but no one can ever dare ask the question. Who knows what sadness Wharton knew to paint such a tormenting picture of true passion—between watching this and The Remains of the Day a week later, it's amazing I was able to leave my room for a year. No one escapes this doom, Wharton says: we either break the rules and are punished to death for it, or play by them and watch ourselves slowly perish on the inside. We become less human and more drawings of humans; we become as hollow, or shall we say “innocent”, as the age around us.
The review of this Movie prepared by Bil Antoniou